Rather than presenting a “Classic” and a “Discovery” in this weekend’s Opera Club, we invite you to dip your toes into Beethoven’s only completed opera in its various incarnations in the year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.
Both productions are from Vienna, both from 2020, but neither present the “standard” 1814 Fidelio. The two lesser-known versions of the opera, from 1805 and 1806 respectively, boast different overtures and distinctive structural and other musical features, with Singspiel (spoken dialogues between musical numbers). While in 1805, the work was premiered as Leonore – named after the opera’s female protagonist and based on the opera Léonore ou l’amour conjugale (by French revolutionary Jean Nicolas Bouilly), it appeared under the title Fidelio for the first time in 1806, the title chosen by the administration at Theater an der Wien.
In early 2020, the two big Viennese opera theatres presented these versions in two exciting interpretations. At Theater an der Wien, Austrian actor and winner of an Academy Award Christoph Waltz (you might know him from Inglourious Basterds) directed the 1806 Fidelio, in a production that sets the story as a psychological drama, creating strong, unsettling, and decidedly filmic images in Barkow Leibinger’s colossal, warped staircase construction, dramatically lit by Henry Braham. The Vienna State Opera, for the first time in the history of this revered institution, presents Leonore, in a controversial production by Amélie Niermayer, which treats the original material with much artistic freedom and adds an alter ego figure to the central character of Leonore.
The genesis of Fidelio captures Beethoven’s interest in the French revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The composer’s critique of social injustice is a strong guiding principle throughout the several revisions of the work, as is the resolve of undeserved suffering in the opera’s finale, where heroic courage and love win over political oppression. The original 1805 version, with its libretto and textbook by Joseph von Sonnleithner, differs from its later variation from 1814 mainly in the dramatic focus of the final scenes. Originally, the reunion of the principal characters Florestan and his wife Leonore, who disguises as Fidelio to rescue her husband from unjust imprisonment and fights off criminal nobleman Don Pizarro in his attempt to kill his prisoner Florestan, happens in the confines of the prison cell – the danger not yet averted, in an intimate scene highlighting the private joy of two lovers. The liberation is presented here as the personal achievement of the heroic woman at the centre of the narrative. With its gloomy dungeon scenes, Leonore did not make much of a positive impression. It was also felt to be too long, and closed after only three performances. To improve palatability for Viennese audience, Beethoven was asked to condense the score into two rather than three acts. The libretto was adapted by Stephan von Breuning, and Beethoven wrote a new overture for the 1806 reopening, which was much better received than the original version, but again closed early, allegedly following a dispute between Beethoven and the theatre director. The work was not performed again until 1814 – again in revised form.
In the 1814 version, with a new libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, and a new overture again, the final scene had been adapted in line with the stronger political tone of Treitschke’s writing. Here, the victory against the oppressor is a public scene, and Don Fernando’s announcement of the end of tyranny is a statement against all manipulation of power and moral corruption.
As has been argued in Beethoven scholarship, the emphasis on the hope for peace and personal freedom in this revision was apt, considering the socio-political background of the time: 1814 was the first year of the Congress of Vienna, where Europe’s monarchs laid out a peace plan to prepare for the end of the Napoleonic wars. The 1814 Fidelio, with its idealist message, now is the standard version. It is all the more interesting to hear the rare “ur”-Fidelio, complete with its original overture. The most noteworthy musical difference between the versions here mentioned is the lighter overall sound world of the original: the orchestration is slimmer, lacking the heavy opulence of its successor. This alone makes this rediscovery worthwhile.
The recent production at the Vienna State Opera was subject to much criticism, especially in its treatment of the original textbook, which was replaced with new dialogues. The part of Leonore is played by two performers, representing conflicting sides of Leonore’s personality; soprano Jennifer Davis was chosen for all sung parts and some dialogue, and actress Katrin Röver as her alter ego. The happy ending of the opera is presented here as nothing but a mere fantasy, turning this interpretation by director Amélie Niermeyer into its very own socio-political commentary. The role of Florestan is sung by Benjamin Bruns; Rocco by Falk Struckmann, Pizarro by Thomas Johannes Mayer and Marzelline by Chen Reiss. The musical director is Tomáš Netopil.
At Theater an der Wien, the 1806 Fidelio boasts a strong ensemble of soloists, with Nicole Chevalier possessing both the vocal and dramatic qualities to present a psychologically complex Leonore. The cast also includes Eric Cutler (Florestan), Gábor Bretz (Don Pizarro), Christopf Fischesser (Rocco) and Mélissa Petit as Marzelline, among others. The musical director is Manfred Honeck.
As always, please do contact us on Facebook or Twitter or email@example.com if you’ve got any questions about these operas or productions: we would be delighted to help!
This week’s Opera Club viewing suggestions are Wagner’s Parsifal as the classic, and Halévy’s La Juive as the discovery. If you have any questions or would like to discuss the productions, please do comment on our Facebook and Twitter feeds and we’ll get back to you!
Richard Wagner Parsifal Bavarian State Opera, Munich
In moments of collective crisis, we look to people of extraordinary ability for the rescue: we need heroes. Heroes come in different shapes, and lie in the eye of the beholder. They might be nurses and doctors, they might be climate activists, they might be soldiers. Uniting heroes of all kinds and times is a quality of singularity, a skill set that sets them apart, makes them unreachable, maybe even transcendental?
Richard Wagner’s strong interest in heroes is evident throughout his career as a composer of “Musiktheater”. It culminated in his last opera, Parsifal, which made the search for a “true hero” the focal point of this truly epic “Gesamtkunstwerk” – the only work he specifically wrote for his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth (premiere 1882). Wagner’s libretto is based on the medieval poem of the same name by Wolfram von Eschenbach, and its protagonist: the young, naïve man Parsifal, who is chosen by destiny to save the Kingdom of the Grail.
The opera narrative can seem dizzyingly complex, but revolves around a few central characters. King Amfortas worries about his Kingdom, and its most valuable treasure: the holy Grail, a stone with miraculous powers. When fighting his arch enemy, the magician Klingsor, Amfortas was seduced by Klingsor’s ally Kundry, and subsequently wounded by a magic spear that prevents the wound from healing. Amfortas orders Gurnemanz, a veteran Knight of the Grail, to look for his saviour, who was defined by a divine prophecy as a “pure fool made wise by suffering.” Gurnemanz believes he recognises the young Parsifal, who was spotted shooting a holy swan, as the “pure fool” and brings him to the Castle of the Grail. When questioned, Parsifal proves oblivious to his transgression, but begins to realise his mistake when he feels pity for the animal he killed. Later however, when Parsifal seemingly fails to react appropriately to witnessing the uncovering of the Grail and Amfortas’ cry of agony, Gurnemanz chases him out. On his aimless wanders, Parsifal reaches Klingsor’s realm, where the magician orders Kundry to woo him and bring about his downfall. Will Parsifal prove to be the hero that can save the Kingdom of the Grail against dark forces?
Parsifal is densely populated with mythological references, Christian and Buddhist symbolism, romantic motifs, and – in the eye of some – pre-fascist thought. The opera continues to fascinate and puzzle audiences, critics and academics. Musically, Wagner clearly establishes contrasting spaces: Amfortas’ Kingdom of the good against the Klingsor’s realm of the evil. He assigns strong musical themes to the Grail, to the characters, and to several emotional states, such as Parsifal’s pity, or Kundry’s longing.
The production in Munich boasts several outstanding regulars at the Bavarian State Opera, such as tenor Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), baritone Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas) and soprano Nina Stemme as Kundry. Kirill Petrenko conducts the stellar Bayerisches Staatsorchester. The director is Pierre Audi.
Some ancient conflicts are painfully modern. Halévy’s grand opéra La Juive certainly hits a nerve in its commentary on societal intolerance towards the “Other”. In their dismissal of those representing difference, the characters in La Juive call on God – each meaning a different one, but each believing to have been given divine consent for their behaviour. Within a society driven by prejudice and populist thought, the individual’s attempt of establishing acceptance and openness is challenged by the masses. In La Juive, it is especially the older characters, who fail to look behind the surface of religious customs and community membership in their blind rejection of those they deem alien – with tragic consequences.
Eugène Scribe very consciously placed his narrative during a synod in 1414, a historic event designed to smooth the cracks between different strands of Christian practice: a time of conflict and judgement. Against this backdrop, we encounter a Jewish goldsmith (Eléazar) and his daughter (Rachel), who are observed working on a Christian holiday and subsequently face a death sentence for committing blasphemy. When Cardinal Brogni enters, he recognises Eléazar as a past acquaintance, and releases both prisoners. A young man, Prince Léopold, follows them. He is attracted to Rachel, who knows him as the Jewish painter Samuel – a false identity. When the public, led by Brogni, once again demands Eléazar’s death, Léopold manages to appease their anger.
By night, the Jewish community – including Léopold – secretly celebrate Passover at Eléazar’s house. They are interrupted by the arrival of Princess Eudoxie, who has been chosen a husband and has come to commission a gold necklace as a wedding present. When alone with Rachel, Léopold reveals himself to be a Christian. Eléazar overhears the scene. After much debate, he is willing to give the couple his blessing, but Léopold – suddenly angst-ridden – declines and hurriedly leaves.
By day, Eléazar and Rachel deliver the necklace to Eudoxie’s house, where the family celebrates the princess’s engagement to Leopold. Rachel publicly accuses him of infidelity. Eléazar, Rachel and Léopold are arrested and face death penalty. In prison, Cardinal Brogni and Eléazar meet again. Brogni tries to convince Eléazar to convert to Christianity to save his daughter. Eléazar reclines and reveals that Brogni’s daughter, who the Cardinal thought dead, was indeed rescued from a fire by a Jewish man…Will the two men reach out to each other to prevent tragedy?
Halévy’s five-act opera is a prime example of French grand opéra in its setting of a historically-inspired, tragic story, and its combination of large-scale dramatic choir scenes and intimate duets. The production by Peter Knowitschny and his design team capture perfectly the stigma of difference, and the arbitrary nature of marginalisation. The cast is superb, including sopranos Corinne Winters (Rachel) and Nicole Chevalier (Princess Eudoxie), and tenors Roy Cornelius Smith (Eléazar) and Enea Scala (Léopold). Musical director is Antonio Fogliani.
For our weekend edition of Opera Club, we would like to recommend a much-revered production of Puccini’s Tosca at the Vienna State Opera, and rarely-performed Handel opera Rodrigo, directed by Northern Ireland Opera’s artistic director Walter Sutcliffe at the Göttingen Händel Festspiele in 2019.
Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca combines one of opera history’s most interesting female characters (and musically varied soprano roles) with one of opera history’s most sinister baddie: a truly explosive mix! After the success of his La Bohème, Puccini revisited an earlier idea to set to music Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca. He had seen the notorious Sarah Bernhardt in the title role in Paris, and convinced his publisher Ricordi to secure the rights. Since its eagerly-awaited premiere in January 1900, Tosca has been a firm audience favourite, even if it didn’t initially receive the critical praise that Puccini might have expected. Some of the reasons for the opera’s persistence in the repertoire arguably match those brought forward by critics: Tosca is unashamedly melodramatic, sometimes blunt, certainly overt in its depiction of violence and lust. While scenes of on-stage assassination, attempted rape, and torture have caused some to condemn Tosca as vulgar and brutalist, audiences have experienced it as real, unveiled drama, with characters that possess psychological depths and grit. Floria Tosca – a celebrated prima donna (much like Sarah Bernhardt) – is simultaneously portrayed as vain, passionate, devoted, brave, and ultimately naïve. Her attempts to psychologically out-manipulate sadistic villain Scarpia to save her lover Cavaradossi in Act II are spine-tinglingly gripping and the outcome of this effort truly touching. Musically, the opera has much to offer in ways of what Germans call “earworms” – catchy melodies worked into some of the repertoire’s favourite arias (for example Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”; Scarpia’s “Te Deum”, or Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle”). Puccini very consciously used musical themes to characterise the opera’s protagonists, and wrote recurring Leitmotifs for some of the libretto’s most significant symbols and ideas; the knife, for example. The libretto, written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, introduces political fugitive Angelotti, who seeks shelter in the church where painter Cavaradossi works on a fresco. Cavaradossi vows to help Angelotti, but is disturbed by the arrival of his lover, Floria Tosca. Later, Chief of Police Scarpia arrives and suspects Cavaradossi to be involved in Angelotti’s escape. He arouses Tosca’s jealousy, with tragic consequences…
Musical director of this revival production at Vienna State Opera is Marco Armiliato, director is Margarethe Wallmann. You will hear and see Karine Babajanyan as Tosca, Piotr Beczała as Cavaradossi and Carlos Álvarez as Scarpia.
Georg Friedrich Handel
Libretto anonymously adapted from Francesco Silvani’s Il duello d’Amore e di Vendetta
Händel Festspiele Göttingen (2019)
Georg Friedrich Handel’s Rodrigo was the composer’s first opera for Italy (premiered in 1707), and despite much revived interest in Handel’s operas, remains relatively obscure and is only seldom performed. Until 1974, the opera was believed to be lost, and in 1983 some more parts were discovered. In May 2019, the Händel Festspiele in Göttingen (mid-East Germany) tackled a reconstructed version of the score under the musical leadership of early music specialist and the festival’s artistic director Lawrence Cummings. A great asset of this recent production is the historically-informed performance practice with a very fine festival orchestra and a fantastic cast, including Erica Eloff as Rodrigo, Fflur Wyn as Esilena, Silvia Fragato as Florinda and Jorge Navarro Colorado as Giuliano, amongst others.
Rodrigo is very loosely based on the Visigothic rule in Spain, around AD 710. The character of Rodrigo refers to the historic figure of the Duke of Baetica – the last Visigothic king. At least three of the other characters have also historical counterparts. Rather than following the king’s political career in detail, the opera revolves around his personal, or shall we say intimate, affairs. We do learn that Rodrigo killed the rightful ruler Vitizza to claim the throne, and is facing rebellion led by the young man Evanco. The narrative proper, however, begins with the accusations of Rodrigo’s lover Florinda: after impregnating her, Rodrigo had broken his promise to repudiate his wife Esilena. When Florinda’s brother Giuliano learns of the betrayal, Rodrigo’s choices in private life begin to have consequences for his role as king.
The production by Northern Ireland Opera’s artistic director Walter Sutcliffe and designer Dorota Karolczak highlights Rodrigo’s hedonistic lifestyle, and capture the internal and external ruin of a once lavish kingdom at the verge of collapse. Karolczak’s set and costumes are playing with the grotesque, are full of details, sinister and comical at once. Handel’s music (he was only 22 when completing the opera) is already leading very clearly to his later, flourishing Italianate style. The score boasts several beautiful arias, the most attractive perhaps Esilena’s “Par dar pregio all’amor mio”, with its stunning obligato violin accompaniment.
If you had a chance to watch the first two options for our online opera club, we hope you enjoyed them: do feel free to send us any questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week we suggest Bizet’s Carmen as our classic and Jaromír Weinberger’s Spring Stormsas our discovery. We are in Berlin for both productions after our New York visit last week, at the Staatsoper for Carmenand the Komische Oper for Spring Storms. Scroll down for links to each production and some context and background about each work. Do let us know what you think!
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Georges Bizet’s Carmen is one of those operas that we all know something about. Whether it is the “Toreador song”, the “Habanera”, or the Carmen neckline dress – the opera has long made it into popular and consumer culture. Most of us will also have an idea about her identity, maybe even her looks. Over the last 145 years, Carmen has developed into a stock figure; the hot-blooded gypsy beauty, who uses her exotic looks and sexual allure to play with the male gaze and conjure her admirers’ downfall. Carmen: the original, and ultimate femme fatale?
Considering the enormous popularity of the opera and its protagonist, it might come as a surprise that initially Carmen, which boasted a libretto (based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée) by two of the 19th century’s most skilled and prolific writers, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, was not a success. In fact, the premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris in March 1875 provoked a scandal. Why? Against the tradition of the Opéra, which was a decidedly bourgeois institution with entertainment that typically confirmed conservative values, Carmen introduced as its heroine a proletarian, unmarried woman who regularly changes lovers and flaunts her disregard for the law. Instead of the usual happy ending, the opera ends in tragedy. This breach of the conventions of the genre of opéra comique and its home institution made opera history. Despite the initial outrage, Carmen evolved into an audience favourite – albeit only after Bizet’s death, and initially in a new version that replaced the original spoken dialogues with new recitatives (written by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud) in order to comply with standard practice then dominated by grand opera. With its misleading name, the genre of opéra comique might suggest to us today, that humorous plotlines were a main characteristic. Instead, interspersed spoken dialogues between musical numbers were a defining feature, but fell out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century.
Carmen was a new departure in several ways. Bizet, who had himself suggested Mérimée’s story for a new opera, also challenged generic role types. The leading tenor, Don José, enters not with music, but dialogue, and has no aria proper in the entire opera (the “flower aria” in Act II, his confession of love to Carmen, is really part of a large-scale duet). His character is thus pitched considerably weaker than audiences would have come to expect, and also considerably weaker than Carmen’s. Her music, in comparison, identifies her as strong-willed, and laden with dangerous, erotic energy. Her “Habanera” is a performance within the performance – and throughout the opera, Carmen is shown to use music and dance to seduce and warn at the same time. Her music is active, rather than contemplative. The plot revolves around the turbulent love affair between army man José and the village woman Carmen, who resists her lover’s demands of commitment and faithfulness. Starting playfully, Carmen soon unfolds into story of recklessness, dependency, and unravelling disaster. While set in Spain and borrowing musical idioms from that milieu, Carmen is quintessentially French. One should not forget that its librettists wrote for Offenbach’s opéra bouffe, and that Bizet himself was “discovered” by Offenbach. Carmen is also an interesting case when considering the development of musical realism, verismo, in the late 19th century. In 1875, the psychological depths of Carmen’s characters, and above all its drama, were considered extraordinary. The fascination lasts until today.
The new production realised at Staatsoper Berlin decided to stage the original version with spoken French dialogue. In the role of Carmen, the Staatsoper presents mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who might well prove to be among the most memorable singers to interpret this role this decade. Michael Fabiano is Don José, Lucio Gallo sings Escamillo, and Christiane Karg is a wonderfully lyric Micaëla. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin, the production was directed by Martin Kušej. The performance was recorded in an empty Staatsoper on March 12th 2020. The programme booklet is free to download, with a synopsis in English.
The Komische Oper in Berlin recently premiered “the last operetta of the Weimar Republic” – the rediscovered Spring Storms by Jewish-Czech composer Jaromír Weinberger. The operetta was premiered in Berlin in late January 1933, but was closed only a few days later with the beginning of Nazi rule. It has since been forgotten; until now. Thanks to the team at Komische Oper and its artistic director Barry Kosky, who has become a true champion of neglected Weimar operetta, audiences can once again enjoy the lush sounds of Weinberger’s score (libretto by Gustav Beer, new orchestration by Norbert Biermann). Spring Storms breathes the air of Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic: metropolitan sounds of jazz, lush lyrical melodies written for star tenor Richard Tauber, and snappy dance breaks.
The story, set during the time of the Japanese-Russian war at the beginning of the 20th century, allowed Weinberger to include plenty of musical exoticism: another fashionable device in early 1930s operetta writing. This production, directed by Kosky and designed by Klaus Grünberg and Dinah Ehm, is a feast for eyes and ears with its feather dances, ball gowns, Chinese dragons, and a real firework display. A real find is soprano Vera-Lotte Becker in the leading role: her bright tone and lyricism make her a perfect choice for this piece! Sung in German, with English surtitles. Plot in English also available via the link.
If you follow us on Facebook you’ll have seen that we posted this week about an informal ‘opera club’ online. The idea is to give us a weekly diversion from the news onslaught and build up a community where we can chat about what opera we are watching each week: hopefully provide some operatic balm and distraction from the sobering realities of the world at the moment. We’ll adapt the idea as we go along, but to get us started, we’re beginning with an absolute classic: La Traviata, which you’ll enjoy whether you are an opera buff or completely new to it. Each week we will also suggest something a little bit different, either opera or a classical concert as an alternative. This week it is a Lieder recital in New York performed by Fleur Barron who was Maddalena in our production of Rigoletto in 2018.
If you can’t watch the version of La Traviata we suggest (as it’s time-limited) then there’s another suggested link as well, or take your pick of another production online. Maybe we can all reconvene on Facebook at the end of the week to see what you thought/answer any questions and as time goes on we’ll adapt to what works best for those who want to be involved? Thanks to our Dramaturg, Judith Wiemers, for the following contextual and production notes on each suggestion.
Giuseppe Verdi La Traviata
from the Metropolitan Opera New York
We begin our recommendations of online operas with an absolute classic: Verdi’s La Traviata, in a production from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. La Traviata (The fallen woman) holds a special place in the core operatic repertoire and is among the most-played and most popular operas of all time, maybe sharing its place at the top of the all-time favourites with Puccini’s La Bohème.
The melodic richness of Verdi’s score and the poignancy of its narrative, written by long-time collaborator Francesco Maria Piave (who also wrote the libretti for Rigoletto, La Forza del Destino and Macbeth, among others) make La Traviata (premiered in 1853, during Verdi’s so-called “middle” period) an irresistible programming choice for opera houses all over the world.
Set in Paris in the early 19th century, the opera revolves around courtesan Violetta, who faces her downfall when deciding to commit to a love relationship with her admirer Alfredo. She learns that in a society that is guided by prejudice and greed, she can only exist as an object of desire, available to all. La Traviata, marking the beginning proper of the Verismo tradition in opera, presented a novelty in depicting a heroine from a disreputable milieu, equipped with a complex personality. Despite its ensembles scenes in Act I and II, La Traviata has been described as a chamber opera, due to the dramaturgical significance of very private moments of introspection experienced by the female protagonist.
In the Met production by director Michael Myer, Diana Damrau performs the role of Violetta, with Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium. This relatively traditional take on the opera is both musically and visually opulent. The original broadcasting date was December 15, 2018. The video will be available on demand from 19th March at 7:30pm EDT/11.30 p.m. GMT for 20 hrs.
Or there’s our own Artistic Director, Walter Sutcliffe’s production at the open air Staatstheater Braunschweig here (not subtitled). Act 1 and Act 2
Fleur Barron and Myra Huang perform live at the 92nd Street Y concert hall in New York
You might remember Northern Ireland-born mezzo soprano Fleur Barron from her spirited performance in NI Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto in 2018, where she sang the role of Maddalena to critical acclaim.
On her current tour, she presents some of the most revered Lieder in the repertoire alongside pianist and accompanist Myra Huang; Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), as well as Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. Both Mahler song cycles are based on poems by the German poet Friedrich Rückert. In Kindertotenlieder, a collection of about 400 poems, Rückert poured his grief over the loss of his two children into verse. In his musical setting of five of these poems (which exist in versions for orchestra, and piano), Mahler emulates Rückert’s introspective tone with sparse instrumental texture and moments of wonderful lyricism. His harmonic language is discomforting; full of delusions of better times, lacking resolution. The collection Rückert-Lieder combines some of Mahler’s most beloved song settings, from the eerie “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world) to the sentimental love song “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty). Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebe (To the distant beloved) is considered to be one of the first song cycles ever written (1816). It addresses a man’s observations of perpetually changing landscapes, which guide his memories of an absent lover.
We’ll post the details of each performance here every week (a fixed day to be determined shortly) but do follow us on Facebook too where we hope to have some friendly discussions about what we’ve watched each week with our community. https://www.facebook.com/NorthernIrelandOpera/